For years, hoteliers have griped that anonymous reviews on TripAdvisor could not be trusted because they could easily be distorted and manipulated by competitors.
Last week, one of their own got caught red-handed doing just that.
Paris-based hotelier Accor said it had placed one of its executives on a leave of absence after learning that he had posted more than 100 reviews of both Accor-operated hotels and competing properties on TripAdvisor under an assumed alias.
The incident marked what is believed to be the first time a senior executive with a major hotel company has been caught writing fake reviews. It highlighted not just the question of how legitimate user reviews are but the significant and growing impact such reviews have on hotel bookings.
Accor’s brands include Sofitel, Pullman, Novotel and Ibis.
The U.K.-based online reputation-management firm KwikChex identified Peter Hook, Accor’s Australia-based director of communications for its Asia-Pacific region, as the employee who was caught writing fake reviews on TripAdvisor. KwikChex said Hook wrote the reviews under the pseudonym “Tavare.”
While Accor declined to confirm Hook’s identity, they said that the employee in question had violated the company’s social media policy, which requires all Accor employees to fully disclose their identity and affiliation in social media posts.
Hook was outed after KwikChex received a tip and used the Facebook link in Trip-
Advisor’s app to match the picture associated with Tavare to Hook.
Among the hotels Hook praised were Pullman hotels in Sydney and Auckland, a Sofitel in Cambodia and a Novotel in England. He had less kind words for competing hotels: Adelaide’s InterContinental Hotel and Sydney’s Park Hyatt were among those he had slammed, according to KwikChex.
TripAdvisor removed the reviews, which its spokeswoman, Alison Croyle, called “inappropriate” because of the writer’s position with Accor and the hotels he had reviewed.
In a statement last week, Accor said, “The employee has taken a leave of absence whilst we investigate this situation further.”
Accor said it took “immediate” action after confirming Hook’s identity of the executive, adding, “We value the feedback online travel reviews and forums provide and will take whatever steps we can to ensure their credibility and transparency.”
Travel review veracity has gained relevance in recent years as more customers depend on sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp as a reference for potential hotel and restaurant bookings. TripAdvisor, the largest travel review site, has more than 200 million unique monthly visitors, about quadruple the site’s volume two years ago.
Because of such a growing influence, some operators are attempting to game the system and use their anonymity to their advantage. The research firm Gartner predicted in a report released in September that by next year, as many as 15% of social media reviews of places like hotels and restaurants will be fakes.
The Accor situation “does reinforce the conversation people have about the authenticity of these reviews,” said Henry Harteveldt, the travel industry analyst with Hudson Crossing. Harteveldt said he did not believe Accor encourages the practice of writing fake reviews.
“TripAdvisor has taken steps to try to sniff out fake reviews,” he said. “But this doesn’t help.”
In fact, the veracity issue has become prominent enough that in 2011, Cornell University students built a software program that they claimed could identify bogus reviews on user-review websites.
The students said at the time that the software could spot fake reviews with 90% accuracy. In contrast, they said, research showed that humans were successful at spotting false reviews with only 50% accuracy.
Words like “hotel,” “Chicago,” “my,” “experience” and “vacation” tended to show up in fake reviews, while legitimate content contained words such as “floor,” “bathroom” and “small” as well as the “$” sign, the students said at the time.
Meanwhile, Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration late last year attempted to correlate user reviews with room rates. Specifically, a one-point swing on Travelocity’s five-point rating scale on average swayed room rates by 11%.
And factoring in multiple review sites, a 1% increase in the hotel’s so-called “online reputation score” boosts revenue per available room by more than 1%, the Cornell researchers said.
Amid that backdrop, the Accor scandal is particularly notable not only because it’s believed to be the first time an executive-level hotel employee was caught trying to tilt reviews to his company’s favor but also for his sheer volume of fake reviews. Hook posted 105 reviews since becoming a TripAdvisor reviewer under his pseudonym in 2006, KwikChex said.
InterContinental Hotels Group declined to comment specifically on Accor or the Adelaide property. Nor would it say if the company believed that the reviews qualified as fraud and thus merited legal action.
The U.K.-based hotel company would only say in a statement that online reviews “have changed the way people book hotels” and that “the ethical code outlined by review sites should be adhered to, retaining the integrity of these sites for the enjoyment of the world’s travelers.”
Hyatt representatives declined to respond to a request for comment.
“I expect the measurable impact of the 100 reviews on any one hotel is so small that it’s not worth the costs of a legal battle,” said Chris Anderson, the Cornell associate professor who authored last year’s study of user reviews’ impact on hotel revenue. “Plus, any P.R. coming from the legal battle would most likely not benefit the properties.”
TripAdvisor’s Croyle denied that user-review veracity was an issue and said TripAdvisor has systems in place that keep false reviews at a minimum.
“As well as all reviews being screened by our world-class tools for fraud,” Croyle said, “we also benefit from a large and passionate community of more than 200 million monthly visitors who let us know if something is potentially inappropriate, as in this case. We are confident that our systems and processes work.”
And while KwikChex’s business is largely based on hoteliers who say they’ve been unfairly slammed by illegitimate TripAdvisor reviews written by competitors, company co-founder Chris Emmins actually praised the travel review site for adding the Facebook feature.
“The Facebook app was actually a step in the right direction in terms of authentication,” Emmins said. “Not so much to catch a senior executive in this way, but simply that any greater level of authentication for reviewers is welcome.“
Still, both Anderson and Harteveldt noted that the sheer volume of Hook’s reviews strongly suggests that readers should beware of fake write-ups and that some hoteliers will continue to be willing to take the risk of writing them.
“The guy had written more than 100 fake reviews,” Harteveldt noted. “It takes a lot of time to do that.”
Follow Danny King on Twitter @dktravelweekly.